FOREWORD: After a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, I hung out with Ambulance Ltd. in my van. While leader Marcus Congleton (who, according to Wikipedia, worked with Velvet Underground icon John Cale on an ’08 album) was a cool dude, his ex-guitarist Benji Lysaght, tried unsuccessfully to sabotage my tape deck and kept drunkenly telling us the Lakers were gonna be basketball champs – not! Along for the ride were two Britney Spears lookalike groupies. One wasn’t wearing undies and I saw her brown beaver. Yum.
Ambulance Ltd. first infatuated me when they opened for artful Manhattan-based bohos Skeleton Key at the Mercury Lounge in ’03. Their intricate Jazz-informed post-rock confections swerved through lucid dual guitar vibrancy and subtly complex bass-drum rhythms underscored by echo-drenched keyboard swells. Moderately daring, oft times eloquently understated, each restrained piece built from sparsely dirgey auspices before lead singer-guitarist Marcus Congleton’s swarthy lyrical gloom unfurled exhilarating climactic emotional release. Their initial self-titled 5-song EP clearly evinced Ambulance’s sonic wizardry.
Signed to local TVT Records, Ambulance Ltd. are busy touring for their ambitious long-play debut, plainly entitled LP. Beginning with the beautifully transporting instrumental, “Yoga Means Union,” LP’s blurry surrealism mashes icy blues premonitions with meditative folk reflections. The caramelized seductiveness and spacey ambiance consuming the moody convalescent “Ophelia” and the penetrating sedation of the echo-drenched, surf-wired “Sugar Pill” flawlessly detail its plush veneer. Gleaming brilliantly, “Stay Where You Are” creates a swirled psychedelic illusion Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, Ride, and Radiohead fans should appreciate.
Though the combo now claim New York City as hometown, Pacific Northwest-bred Congleton and native Belfast, Ireland drummer Darren Beckett brought in New England-raised bassist Matt Dublin and Santa Monica-reared guitarist Benji Lysaght after Ambulance’s original two members quit.
Despite differing backgrounds (Pixies-loving Beckett and Guns N’ Roses loyalist Lysaght experimented with disparate Jazz troupes while Dublin adored Black Sabbath), they settled on a sound closer to British shoegazers Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, only more tranquil, reserved, and ethereal than those respected ‘80s feedback-skewed lynchpins.
Congleton spoke via phone just before Ambulance Ltd. headed to Atlantic City in April to open for dramatic rockers Live.
Since you grew up in American bohemian capitol, Eugene, were your parents stoners?
MARCUS: I’m sure they were. They lived in California during the ‘60s and played Doors, Stones, and Dylan when I was young. That was a big influence. My mom is from Palo Alto and my dad from the Eastern Oregon desert. They went to college together, moved to Portland as social workers. I grew up in Eugene until I was 19. Underground punk bands would come through to play tiny Icky’s Teahouse. Kids would get drunk in the parking lot. It was irresponsible and the city shut the venue down for being too hip.
Why’d you decide to move cross-country to New York instead of going to nearby music mecca San Francisco?
I was thinking of going there first. But I got the feeling San Francisco wasn’t big enough. I visited Chicago and liked it, but I’d never been to New York and there was nothing like it. Darren and I played in a different band, the Interpreters, at first for months. They started in Philadelphia, moved to New York, but we’re not on their album. I did a bunch of unofficial gigs with them.
Why does your debut full length, LP, have such a generic title?
We couldn’t think of a name. So when we designed the cover, it didn’t seem like there was room for a title. We thought it looked better with the band name and nothing else.
How were the four songs chosen from the EP changed for LP?
“Heavy Lifting” and “Young Urban” were completely re-recorded from scratch while “Stay Where You Are” and “Primitive” were re-mixed with beefed-up production and guitar tones added.
Is there a political message hidden inside the deeply profound “Primitive”?
Nothing too literal. It’s a sarcastic rant.
“Primitive” seemingly juxtaposes “Anecdote,” which is a spry piano-based walk in the park reminiscent of Brewer & Shipley’s stony “One Toke Over The Line.”
We were going for “Oh Yoko,” actually. It’s shameless. (laughter)
In reference to Yoko, your songwriting tends to be influenced by her late husband, the great John Lennon.
Yeah. Him and Dylan are my guys. Elliott Smith was great. It was sad business when he died. He had a problem with his wrist. He did a solo acoustic set in Portland I saw. He didn’t look well. He was fucking up words and guitar parts. The people loved him anyway. We played “Coming Up Roses” at our CMJ Mercury Lounge show in dedication to him.
One of Ambulance’s most accessible tracks, “Stay Tuned,” was relegated to LP’s end. Why?
We don’t play that live. It’s an older song we revived. It’s not part of our repertoire so we didn’t want to feature it up-front. But I like it.
Do you use “Yoga Means Union” as a live opener since it’s got that slow rhythmic froth as a perfect lead-in?
Actually, we’ve been closing with it since it climaxes well, leaving the audience at a high point.
What’s with its transcendental title?
I saw it in an Alister Crowley yoga book and couldn’t resist it. But I don’t qualify as a devil worshipper.
How did veteran producer Jim Abbiss’ studio mastery affect the recording?
He uses these vintage ‘60s analog tools for a thick, dreamy quality. He has a keen sense of how to make guitars-drums blend creamily. His engineer produced our EP, which had a lush wash of guitars.
To expound on that idea of mystical dream-like arrangements, “Heavy Lifting” boils to a fervent crescendo softened by contemplative piano mellifluence.
Yeah. I got the title from this moving guy, The Man With the Van, whom I used to work for. So heavy lifting was always on my mind. But I wrote it about my girlfriend I was living with at the time. She got picked up in Brooklyn on a drug charge and went to jail. I remember writing it waiting for her to get out.
Is there a peripheral thematic flow to LP?
Not really. The first three songs go down by half steps. We wanted to change it up. But we’ve been thinking of doing an album with one theme.
Being that there are only a dozen recorded songs Ambulance has exposed to the buying or downloading public as of this writing, is it difficult to maneuver songs live? Or do you throw in new tunes?
We add a few covers. We’ve done the Pixies’ “Invisible Man” for awhile. But we usually only get to play for 45 minutes so we don’t have to deal with that issue.
Have you thought about adding lights and visuals to the live presentation?
We’re trying to do it more. We were working with a lighting guy at our last few bigger shows. We’re getting more involved with that. I think it’s important.
I understand blue-eyed soul by Hall & Oates, Seals & Crofts, and Steely Dan has influenced you since Ambulance formed.
These kids who started Ambulance, our old guitarist and bassist originally from Cleveland, used to play them. They loved that ‘70s stuff which I’d never checked out before.
Are you friends with cool Brooklyn-based bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ex-Models, Liars, or Les Savy Fav?
I like those bands but they came before us. We’re better friends, musically and artistically, with Inouk.